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The tobacco plant is the natural producer of nicotine, which is one of the most poisonous plant substances. As an ingredient in tobacco products, it is harmful to health, in medicine and pharmacy it is a useful component of drugs and can be used in many ways.
The tobacco plant belongs to the large nightshade family and is therefore closely related to potatoes and tomatoes, but also to the highly poisonous deadly nightshade and the angel's trumpet.
The botanical name "Nicotiana" and the name "Nicotine" for the poisonous ingredient go back to the French Jean Nicot. In the middle of the 16th century he made his first attempts at the medicinal properties of leaves.
The genus of Nicotiana includes 65 known species. The original distribution area of the tobacco plant are Latin and Central America as well as the southern part of North America.
The most important species is Nicotiana Tabacum, the basis of Virginia tobacco, the most widely smoked tobacco variety. One of the nicotine-richest types is the farmer's tobacco, the Nicotiana Rustica.
The tobacco plant has medium-sized, light green, not too thick leaves and, depending on the variety, has beautiful pink or yellow flowers. Depending on the level of growth, it reaches a height of two meters.
It is considered easy to cultivate under optimal conditions and good care. Correspondingly large and widespread are the cultivation areas of the useful plant, the leaves of which are used in dried form as raw material for tobacco production.
In Germany, the largest growing area is in the Palatinate. The nicotine, which is formed in the roots and deposited in leaves and flowers, serves to ward off pests. Because of its high nicotine content, tobacco is classified as a drug.
Sowing, rearing and harvesting
Tobacco plants are grown from seeds and planted as young plants in the fields in May, when there is no longer any threat of frost. During the growth process, the plants need sufficient fertilizer because their potassium and calcium requirements are very high.
When the plant has finally reached a height of about 1.50 meters and the bottom leaves begin to turn yellow in late summer, the harvest, known as tobacco breaking, can begin.
Tobacco breaking is done by hand, similar to wine, and is accordingly labor-intensive. The farmers therefore hire seasonal workers.
It is harvested from the bottom up by breaking off the leaves on the stem. However, only the bottom rows of leaves are broken per harvest. Another four to six harvests are then carried out at intervals of one week.
Sensitive plant that needs care
Raw tobacco is made by hanging the harvested leaves in barns to dry. This process causes the fresh green leaves to turn yellowish brown over time.
Since the plant, which was formerly only native to subtropical areas, also grows and thrives in many temperate climates, tobacco is not only grown in the countries of origin, but now also in the Balkans, Central Europe and Asia.
However, only regions that offer the tobacco plant not only warmth, but also sufficient moisture are suitable for profitable cultivation. Average temperatures of at least 15 degrees are ideal. Growth is inhibited below this.
At zero degrees, the leaves that are needed for tobacco production are permanently damaged. The plant dies at sub-zero temperatures. Strong wind and hail also damage the leaves and make them unusable for the tobacco industry.
Medicine made from nicotine
The Native Americans recognized that tobacco could not only be used as a smoking product. They used tobacco leaves as healing compresses for skin diseases and ulcers and believed that the smoke cleansed the brain.
In addition, the smoke blown into the air provides a direct line to the world of the gods, which should bring healing power for the soul. When the tobacco plant had spread in Europe in the 16th century, people there soon believed in the healing properties of the herbal ingredients.
In addition to the French Jean Nicot, the Dutch doctor Gilles Everaerts also studied the exotic plant. He made tinctures from the extract of the leaves and eventually claimed to have discovered a universal medicine in tobacco. It helps to rid the body of impurities and can be used against cancer, open wounds, scabies, scratches, crops and broken bones.
Some doctors were also convinced that tobacco contained the remedy for cholera, syphilis and the plague. Headache and bad mood can also be driven away by tobacco. The German philosopher and physician Johannes Neander, who published a work on the subject in 1622, was also convinced of the universal applicability of tobacco.
It is correct that - according to the principle of Paracelsus - every poison also has its good side. It just depends on the dosage. This also applies to nicotine. However, it could only be extracted from the tobacco plant in the 19th century.
Scientists are working hard to use the ingredients of the tobacco plant to produce a vaccine against the dreaded Lyme disease, an infectious disease that is transmitted by ticks.
Nicotine is also used as an ingredient in chewing gum and patches to help make smokers non-smokers again.
Smart use of nicotine
In 2008, German biologists from the Max Planck Institute in Jena discovered an interesting property of the tobacco plant during their research. The competition between individual plants is so great in nature that certain species fight for survival and reproduction by all means.
The tobacco plant occupies a very special position in this competition. It attracts insects, which are supposed to serve for pollination, with the particularly sweet and beguiling scent of its flower nectar. At the same time, thanks to the toxicity of the nicotine, it ensures that the insects do not linger too long in the flower.
The short dwell time is intended to prevent them from taking in too much of the nicotine-containing flower juice, as this is extremely valuable for the plant itself. It uses its own poison to keep useless nectar predators and flower-eating insects away.
The biologists discovered the ingenious trick of the tobacco plant through a large-scale experiment. They changed the genetic material of some tobacco plants and in this way obtained nicotine-free, i.e. non-toxic plants. During an observation phase, they filmed the behavior of insects in nicotine-free and nicotine-containing tobacco plants.
The poisonous flowers had the great advantage over the non-poisonous ones that the pollinating insects had to visit and pollinate many more flowers in the same time due to the shorter and less satisfactory residence time in the individual flower. In this way, the tobacco plant secures a rich offspring.
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